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Edging Toward Japan: What horse-riding meant to Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is seen at his house in 1969. (Mainichi)

By Damian Flanagan

I've been fascinated to stumble across various photos of Yukio Mishima I've never seen before, including one of him in his younger days riding a horse.

At the outset of his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mishima tends to be overly associated with his overtly gay novels, "Confessions of a Mask" and "Forbidden Colours". What is forgotten is the other side of Mishima that saw him summer in the exclusive resort of Karuizawa, mix in high society and step out with some of the richest, most eligible young women in Japan.

As part of the means by which Mishima established his credentials to belong to "la creme de la creme," Mishima joined a horse-riding club and was spotted riding along the lanes of Karuizawa, when he wasn't hanging out in the villas of the rich and famous.

The "Karuizawa set" included the playwright Kunio Kishida and his daughter Kyoko (later to star in "Woman of the Dunes" and who went with Mishima to a party as his date only to leave in tears); as well as the prime minister's son Kenichi Yoshida; the beautiful Kaoru "Rose" Kanetaka (later to host one of the most popular TV programmes in Japan); the Itaya sisters Ryoko and Atsuko; and Mieko Kajima, the daughter of one of Japan's richest men, whom Mishima took on a variety of fantasy dates.

But if looking at this picture reminded me of Mishima's "High Society" phase and his escapades in Karuizawa and Tokyo in the early 1950s, it also instantly connected in my mind to a completely different point of reference in Mishima's 1966 short piece "The Voices of the Heroic Dead".

At just the time in the mid-1960s when Mishima was heading in controversially politicised directions, he claimed that one evening he felt "possessed" by the spirits of the dead army officers who had risen in the name of the Emperor in the Feb. 26, 1936 "incident" but were later executed for treason. Mishima felt the Emperor Showa (known as Emperor Hirohito during his reign) had abandoned them, but their "voices" still spoke to Mishima, conjuring up a dream-like vision of the Emperor as a saviour astride a white horse.

"Suddenly, as if a section of white snow had gained wings and come flying towards us, a man -- no, a god-like man -- astride a single white horse came galloping towards us. The white horse raised its head and brayed, its panting breath freezing in the white air, and kicking up the snow it climbed the hill where, wildly stomping the ground with its hoofs, it stopped before us."

It's hard not to feel that the "god-like man" astride a white horse was less a vision of the historical Emperor and more a portrait of Mishima himself.

Mishima was a man who had first mounted a horse in order to gain entry into the highest echelons of society, but who ultimately -- as the title of the second volume of his final tetralogy would have it -- became a "runaway horse," riding away from the social order of the day, transformed in his own mind into an idealistic god-like figure riding in glory towards the spirits of the men he felt that Japanese history had cruelly ignored.


(This is Part 12 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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